Pedalling into Puerto Escondido With Tom Wolff.
Tom Wolff | AUSTRALIA
After a steady eight months riding my bicycle south from Alaska, I realised I was a little exhausted. Not so much physically; it was more a mental thing. I’d met so many wonderful people on the trip down through the United States and Canada. It was taxing to say goodbye over and over again. I cruised into Puerto Escondido on the coast of Oaxaca and soaked up the air of familiarity from a preceding visit six years ago. The first stay was a brief encounter; this time I was ready to stay put.
I began pedalling in Alaska with the idea that I’d keep the wheels rolling until I reached Ushaia in Patagonia – the southernmost extremity of the Americas and the ‘end of the road’. Some version of the journey had been floating around in my head for six or seven years before I eventually set off and I’d often joked that I’d ‘probably get stuck somewhere in Mexico’. The allure of great waves, warm water and incredible food all enticed me. But there was something else I’d overlooked.
My story of Mexico centres on its people. Of the people who welcomed me generously and unconditionally into their homes and their lives. Below are the stories of a few souls I came into contact with. I was a long way from home, but I’d found family.
Spanning three generations, Elena and her entire family lived in the same house in Puerto Escondido on the coast of Oaxaca. Posada Santa Elena sat halfway between the heaving monster waves of Zicatela and the long left walls of La Punta to the south.
With her husband Javier (or ‘El Patron’), Elena rented about fifteen rooms to those visitors wishing to stay a little longer than the usual week or two. A few chance encounters led me to Posada Santa Elena and it was there amongst the coconut palms and the bright yellow walls that I found a home. The Posada shone brightly in the Mexican sun, the walls a range of bright pastel colours. There was quite a mix of people from across the world, all visiting Puerto for a range of reasons. When I left for the final time a surfer occupied every single room. The swell season had kicked in and Zicatela’s infamy as one of the world’s most dangerous waves attracted adrenaline-seeking surfers from all four corners of the globe.
I owe a great deal to Elena and her family. She’s one of the few people that truly intimidate me but my respect for her is hard to put into words. Reverence for matriarchal figures in Mexico is paramount. Abuelas like Elena commanded respect but not with a powerful and overarching masculine energy. The exchange was always gentle, compassionate and warm-hearted
Elena was a deeply religious Christian whose life was intertwined with God’s teachings. Looking back, I realised she unknowingly encouraged me to reflect on my own views about Christianity, and religion more generally, in order to reconsider things I’d believed to be true in the past. The form of Christianity that I experienced bore little relation to that I witnessed growing up. It was intricately tied to the unique Indigenous cultures of the land.
The Posada’s third-floor terrace overlooked a vast expanse of ocean and the sunsets never got old, especially when they painted vibrant pinks and oranges across the giant corduroy lines of swell marching in from the horizon. In the afternoon sounds from the courtyard below would often pique my interest, and I’d peer over the crumbling concrete ledge to see Javier chatting busily to Rodrigo about what homemade Brazilian marvel he was going to whip up in the outdoor kitchen that day. It was both strange and surreal to walk back from some of the scariest surfs of my life and return to a world of tranquillity. Mostly oblivious to the waves and conditions Elena’s family always took a friendly interest in my morning surf.
I passed many afternoons playing competitive games of football with Lael and Andrea, while one-year-old Jesué pottered around talking in a language only he could understand. More than once a hefty kick would just miss one of Elena’s beautiful collection of potted plants. The kid in me always feared her reaction had we ever broken something.
Elena rarely addressed her grandchildren by name; they were always spoken to as ‘mi vida’ or ‘my life’. The tender matriarch lived for her grandchildren and the joy they brought her was profound. When I first heard Elena speak to Jesué that way I passed it off as metaphorical. I quickly realised she was being literal.
Vicki was a single mum and a local in Barra de la Cruz who worked as a waitress at the community restaurant down at the beach. She was incredibly good at her job and managed to remember almost every name – all the surfers that came from four corners of the world; Norway, Austria, New Zealand, Russia Australia and the US. Vicki had seen the immense change in the village from surf tourism but she wasn’t bitter about the influx of visitors to her village and chose instead to gain new friendships with many of the visitors. She’d work ten hours shifts walking back and forth between the kitchen of the community restaurant and the palapa and always have a smile on her face. I quickly discovered, while covering her shift on her birthday, that walking back and forth on soft sand for the day is actually pretty bloody tiring.
After our first encounter down at the beach, I spent the best part of five months seeing Vicki almost every day. On my last afternoon in the village, I spotted her holed up in the shade of her front yard to escape the intensity of the debilitating two o’clock sun while watching the local baseball game. Vicki offered me a chair and introduced me to her ten-year-old son. I sat down next to her, flanked on either side by two abuelas – Vicki’s mum on one side and her aunty on the other. Lush green palm fronds hung low and swayed lazily in the afternoon breeze, partially obscuring my view of the village baseball field. Every few minutes the silence was filled by a volley of shouts from the two women, each effortlessly coloured with a hilarity and sarcasm that I’d come to adore as they alternated between words of encouragement for Barra de la Cruz – the home team – and that of amicable abuse for the visitors from the nearby village of El Coyul, further south along the coast of Oaxaca. I recall having a sneaky smile to myself as I leant back on the rear legs of my plastic seat. It was five months since Vicki and I had first met, and here I was in her backyard watching the local baseball game while exchanging jokes, stories and the latest village news.
The reason I’d migrated south to Barra de la Cruz was fairly simple: the big wave season had arrived and I got scared. I didn’t have the boards nor the courage to tackle twenty-foot closeouts and chose instead to glide along endless green walls and live out of my tent under the shade of a big ciruelo tree for four or five months. It was there I met Blanca and Roosevelt – the owners of Posada Blanca and my new home. Filled with greenery and coconut palms, there was ample shade and plenty of room to hang a few hammocks.
Blanca and Roosevelt didn’t speak a whole lot of English so after a few weeks I quickly assumed the role of primary translator for any reservations. Forget booking online at Posada Blanca – there is no phone signal in the village and in the few places that did have fichas for internet access, it was unbearably slow. Communicating in Spanish, the three of us had conversations about so many things in my time there – the fate of the Mexican football team before the World Cup, the education system in Mexico and their thoughts on their neighbouring country to the north. I learned a lot from them. Much like Elena, Blanca was very gentle. Her wicked side loved a bit of gossip and I always keenly awaited the moment where she’d burst out in infectious laughter at the end of a story.
Blanca’s husband Roosevelt worked multiple jobs in addition to all the maintenance, upkeep and gardening at the Posada. Once, when Blanca went away to Oaxaca City for a few days, I asked him how much to charge some potential new guests for a room. He responded before laughing quietly to himself as he walked past with an armful of palm fronds for another roof: “No me preguntes wey, yo solo soy un trabajador acá”. “Don’t ask me dude, I’m just a worker here”
Blanca and Roosevelt had grown up together in the same village, married and had two kids. Not a Sunday went by that I didn’t see three generations eating and laughing under the giant palapa that shaded their white plastic dining table. Roosevelt’s father Christian taught me how to properly prepare fish for an asada. The two men could construct a new roof from a couple of palm trees. I tried and never got close to the skill they had with a machete, nor could I hope to prepare food as delicious as some of Blanca’s homemade recipes. Once again, I felt welcomed and enveloped in a web of friendship and family.
When the time came to leave, I was farewelled by Blanca and Roosevelt and gifted the most Oaxacan presents: a quality bottle of mezcal, a uniquely flavoured alcohol drawn extracted from the sacred agave plant.
The photos you see are my attempt to capture the Mexico I know and love: the colour, beauty and diversity of a truly remarkable place. There is an energy in the landscapes, people and families of Mexico that resonates with something deep within me; it’s some kind of second home.
‘Siempre eres bienvenido acá’.
‘You are always welcome here.’
Eventually the time came to farewell each family – Elena and Javier, Blanca & Roosevelt, Vicki and her loved ones. Each goodbye was accompanied by sincerely spoken words which left in me an enduring kindness and generosity. Whenever I think of Mexico I can’t help but think of family.
All words and photographs by Tom Wolff
Tom is a writer and photographer currently based in Byron Bay, Australia.
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